Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kohelet, the Cynic: An Israelite in Autumn, the Season of Death

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
And the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
To bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
To one’s own self, and find an exit
From the fallen self.

--D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), “The Ship of Death” (poem)

            In most ancient cultures, autumn was the season of death. The god or goddess of spring, Proserpina or Persephone for the Greeks, along with her mother, Ceres; Freya or Frey for the Norsemen, would either die or go to sleep for the winter, and all of nature would reflect the loss. Leaves would fall, cold winds would blow, and the snow would cloak all of nature in a mantle of white. (It is no accident that Jesus is born in the winter and “dies” in the spring; the early Christian evangelists were taking the spring-god myth and reversing it, thereby making it easier for the pagans they targeted for conversion to identify with the new faith they were publicizing.) Our Israelite ancestors’ pagan Canaanite neighbors were little different: for them, autumn was a time to gather in the harvest, drink deep of wine (or beer, which the Egyptians were the first to distill), and settle down to some serious orgies.
            Israel was unique. As the world’s first ethical monotheists, our ancestors greeted seasonal change by thanking the One God who had blessed their crops. They would gladly close down their farms and vineyards and turn either to their local shrine, or, during Solomon’s reign (c. 970-931 BCE) the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (a minor Jebusite city which David chose, chiefly for its centralized, mid-tribal location, much as our Founders chose Washington, D.C.), there to present either their finest produce or the firstlings of their flocks to the kohanim, the priests, who would offer them to God in thanksgiving. It is highly significant that our American Pilgrim forefathers (despite being antisemitic to the Jews of their day) identified closely with the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible, and took their Thanksgiving observance from the Sukkot festival.
            And yet, surrounded as they were by the spectacle of withering grass and leaves falling from trees, our Israelite ancestors asked questions about the dicey nature of human existence: was all of their getting and spending but a “vanity of vanities, an emptiness of emptinesses”? And, in the final analysis, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they strive under the sun? A generation goes, and a new generation comes, but the earth remains forever….All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full….All things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. What has been will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun!” (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, 1:2-9, adapted).
            Of all the books in the Hebrew Bible, Kohelet (the term means “Convoker,” as one who gathers crowds to teach them practical wisdom, i.e., how to live) stands out for its cynicism, its world-weariness, in the very absence of God as a speaking or acting character—a feature it shares, ironically, only with Esther, a far more imaginative and fanciful tale. Kohelet is realistic, true-to-life, and cynical in the extreme. A great deal of it is truly painful to read as the years go on: one person may be wise, and yet suffer in this life; another may be dishonest, and yet profit, scot-free, from his cheating.
Still, of all the biblical books I have read, this is the one to which I return most often: it is cynical, yes, but also hard-headed and honest in its appraisal of our human condition. Although it is attributed to a “son of David,” and tradition considers its author to be Solomon, modern scholarship denies this; many of its words derive from the Persian language, including pardes (“orchard,” but later to gain kabbalistic significance elsewhere), Eccles. 2:5, and pitgam (“a royal decree”), Eccles. 8:11 (Kugel, 2007, p. 513). Its cynicism and lack of “Trust in God and all will be well” also points to some Greek influences.
            I always recommend Kohelet/Ecclesiastes to adult readers. Like all great literary works, one can return to it, year after year, and always profit greatly. Our attitudes and beliefs about Life may change, but Kohelet remains static, much like the Grecian Urn in John Keats’s celebrated Ode. As we enter our beloved, but short, cooler season of autumn here in South Florida, Kohelet is a fine book to curl up with.

Works Cited


Kugel, James. How to Read the Bible: a Guide to Scripture, Then & Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.